Students for Nelsonite: PVCC’s Quest for a State Rock

Students for Nelsonite

Runner-Up – Best Practices in Teaching Face-to-Face, Online, and Hybrid

Team Members

Larry Tiezzi – Piedmont Virginia
Connie Jorgensen – Piedmont Virginia



The world is interdisciplinary; so it makes sense that an interdisciplinary approach provides students an opportunity to experience real life situations. Students for Nelsonite has been a joint project of Geology and Political Science students to research and propose legislation to name Nelsonite the state rock of Virginia. Virginia is one of only 5 states that doesn’t have a state rock, mineral or gem. The project has involved geology students and political science students who otherwise would have been doing separate and possibly individual projects. The team met weekly and ad hoc to discuss progress and challenges.

Some students were required to research the legislative process and develop a strategy to convince a legislator to sponsor the bill in the 2016 General Assembly session. Other students delved into the rock itself – its properties, location, and history. All students were exposed to a range of ideas from multiple disciplines.
As of this writing and even by semesters end, it will be a work in progress. Students have developed plans, talking points, and strategies to achieve their primary goal of making Nelsonite the state rock of Virginia. If Nelsonite becomes the state rock of Virginia, it will occur sometime during Spring semester. However, the students have become so engaged that they have all decided to continue to the end of the process. One student summed up what they all feel, that “this is the best thing I have ever done”.

Connection to VCCS Mission & Complete 2021

“We give people the right knowledge and skills so that lives and communities are strengthened.” Chancellor DuBois

Two of the specific areas of focus for Complete 2021 that this effort addresses are:

  • Reinventing the way community colleges help students succeed and
  • Connecting Virginia’s diverse educational opportunities

This project supports student success by providing students with a unique opportunity to learn about civic and political leadership along with geology in an intimate multi-disciplinary environment. Literature suggests that interdisciplinary approaches help students with critical thinking and cognitive development as they wrestle with differences between the disciplines. Political Science and geology are clearly very different disciplines that attract different types of students with varied skill sets. To be successful in this endeavor, the students have had to acquire and synthesize ideas, apply and integrate their learnings and deal with interpersonal issues. Essentially, they have had to learn how the “world really works”.
This type of project allows students to have a broader perspective on our society while giving them the knowledge that hopefully will translate into greater civic awareness and duty. Numerous studies have shown that when students are engaged with the material, they are more likely to be successful in their educational endeavors. When we can increase student engagement, we will also increase student success which is the basis of Complete 2021.

Applicability Across Disciplines, Units, & Institutions

The world today has significant political issues that are related to science. These include:

  • Global climate change
  • Environmental issues involving biology, chemistry and geology
  • Pipelines (a local issue that is getting a lot of attention)

Community colleges are excellent places to use this type of approach. There are not the walls or barriers between departments as there are at many 4 year universities. Faculty with ideas can more easily reach out to each other in a community college environment. As one professor at a 4 year university stated, “I always wanted to get a state rock but I didn’t know how to do it.” It requires dedicated faculty who want to try a new approach to student centered teaching and look for opportunities to provide interdisciplinary projects.

In our experience the payoff has been more than worth the extra time, energy and work. The same things that benefit the students also benefit faculty.

In the end, we hope that projects like ours will become common and integrated into institutions in new and innovative ways. These projects will increase the end goal of increasing student engagement, retention, and success.

Creative Nature of Project & Connection to Educational Practices

A project that links science with political science is new to PVCC, although there have been other multidisciplinary approaches of more closely related fields. This is a project between groups that are not usually associated academically but are associated in society as a whole.

It is clear that interdisciplinary approaches bring benefits that produce life skills, like tolerance and open-mindness, which increases the chance of student success.
The students will gain a broader perspective on our society while expanding their knowledge and that, hopefully, will translate into greater civic awareness and duty. At this writing the outcome of the project is unknown. The project may fail to find a legislative sponsor; the bill may die in committee; there may be unanticipated opposition. In a project like this students need to be able to adapt to a changing environment and possibly deal with failure and figure out what to do next. To repeat, the students have a hands on experience of how the “world really works”.

Value Over Time

In the most basic sense, if Nelsonite becomes the state rock, it will outlive all of us. The students will have learned a lot about how the political process functions in Virginia. In a broader sense, there is no end in sight of links between science and the political process. The students have learned that there are a variety of perspectives that need to be considered to achieve their goals. Many of the skills learned in this project are lifelong skills, that can be employed in other aspects of their lives.

Politics is everywhere, whether it be in government, business, community around us or in school systems like VCCS. Projects like this teach our students how to better function in a political world. It also teaches them about integrating diverse perspectives and how to plan and devise strategies to succeed. They learn how to function as part of a diverse team, as they are likely to be involved in many team efforts during their careers and lives.

Both faculty involved in the project intend to promote the concept to our colleagues. There are a number of ways that colleges can scale up. For example, student teams can present their legislative projects to a panel of experts at a college wide event. This could be a separate initiative or part of a campus-wide civic engagement effort.
Another unintended, but positive outcome of this project is that both faculty had an excellent professional development opportunity. We learned about another discipline, about other ways of interacting with students, and the power of collaboration which will enhance our teaching in the future.